Playtime Tati Essay

One of the recurrent statements found in the PlayTime supplements is that you have to see it more than once to truly appreciate. Due to the continual long shots, the wide frame, and the crowded amount of characters, there are many gags or comic touches in the background that will be missed. I first saw PlayTime years ago, as my first exposure to Tati, and I fell in love with it right away. This marked my third viewing, and as expected, I found plenty that I had missed during previous viewings, and I adored the film even more.

PlayTime is the culmination of Tati’s artistic and comedic exploits over the previous twenty years, which shockingly only resulted in three feature films. In this time he developed his ‘silent yet noisy’ comedy film, inspired by the giants of silent film, all the while making artistic statements about the modernization of society after the war. While PlayTime is just as hilarious as Mon Oncle or Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, it is grander on every level. It has more comedy, a more direct and pointed message, and is a more ambitious and impressive production.

Tati poured everything into this project, his time, fortune, property, and his credit, leaving him in shambles. Although it is a shame that the film ultimately was a failure and he suffered devestating consequences as a result, at least we were able to see on the screen exactly the type of film that he aspired to make. He even said that he had no regrets because of the final product.

The targets in PlayTime can be isolated and listed as modern architecture, tourism, invention, privacy, taste, or many, many others, but that takes away from the primary message he is trying to convey. Like much of his work, it returns to tradition versus modernity, just like the dogs that contrast with the humans in Mon Oncle, the revelry and lack of boundaries that the partiers experience when they finally get to ‘play’ is the message of PlayTime. Why be so serious and distracted by the trappings of modern society? It does not matter whether you can buy a pair of glasses that allows someone to apply makeup without taking them off, or buildings made of glass so clear that one cannot distinguish what is inside or outside. They are all ludicrous, tasteless, and take away from the essence of humanity, which I think Tati is able to illuminate at the end film.

The first half of film shows various characters, including American tourists, Monsieur Hulot, businessmen, and others frequenting a number of sleek and modernized locations. There are some instances where true French landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Couer are reflected from opening doors, but those momentary images are all that we see of the beauty of Paris. Instead, most of the people spend their time at an expo with ridiculous inventions, most of which are impractical and some worthless (like a broom with lights or a silent door). We know that the tourists see some of France, because buses take them to Montmarte or Montparnasse, and they return with baubles and mementos, but they always return to these lifeless and nondescript buildings.

The latter half of the film takes place almost entirely in a restaurant and nightclub called the Royal Garden. It has been undergoing construction until literally the very last minute before customers arrive, and we soon find out that the restaurant is not quite ready to function. That does not stop people from flooding in. For awhile a doorman does what he can to keep the riffraff out, until Hulot destroys the glass door, allowing everyone entrance. Some are humorously guided there by the light fixture at the entrance, that turns them in a circle and points them into the restaurant. The restaurant is an absolute disaster until, yet again, Hulot’s clumsiness does more destruction. This time he destroys the framework of the architecture, and in it’s wake, leaves a more traditional looking bistro. This is where PlayTime begins, where he encounters a number of different characters, some of whom are locals and others tourists, but it does not matter. They all have quite a time by breaking the rules set forward by modernity.

What Tati is saying really comes into form through the last few images. He takes a liking to one of the American tourists, Barbara, and gets her a parting gift that she opens on the bus ride to the airport. It is a flower arrangement that resembles the street lights that enlighten the trip to Orly, reminding us that beauty can be found in the most unsuspected and curious places, but it is not some type of artificiality and disconnection to be manufactured, packaged and sold. As the cars continue towards the airport and day turns to night, the beautiful imagine remains in the unlikeliest of places.

Film Rating: 10/10


Terry Jones Introduction: He first saw it on a 70 mm screen, which I can only dream of. He could see all the detail in the long shots, and understood why there were not many close-ups. It was the most expensive French film of all time, a failure, but a ‘tour de force’ of filmmaking. Jones calls it the “most ambitious expression of Tati’s genius.”

Selected Scene Commentaries:

There are three commentaries. Historian Philip Kemp looks at roughly 45 minutes of footage and points out how the plot structure is that a number of straight lines in the beginning of the movie become curves towards the end. The statement is abstract, but he is able to demonstrate it by the on-screen behavior.

He talks about how PlayTime was a failure and bankrupted Tati and his family. He goes into the details of how Tati and the family put up so much of their own property and inheritance to finance the film, but it was a financial disaster and wasn’t screened in USA until much later.

Stephane Goudet looks at the beginning scenes in the office and expo, and then the later scenes with the “shopwindow” apartments. Even though the office setting appears intent on creating a more organized and efficient environment, it does the opposite. The spatial proximity of the cubes provides distance and disconnection. The apartments show no boundary between private and public life, and resemble the class conceit previous exhibited by the Arpels. It is no surprise that this scene was originally written for Mon Oncle.

Jerome Deschamps, a Theater Director, looks at the early scenes in the office. One scene in particular, which happens to be one of my favorites, is Mr. Giffard’s long walk down the corridor, coming from the background while Hulot and the secretary wait on the left in the foreground. They can hear his footsteps, but cannot see the long walk like the audience can. The scene takes a long time to unveil, but is worth it. Deschamps then looks at the scene in the waiting room, where Hulot encounters and is fascinated by Mr. Lacs, and then misses Giffard because he is staring out of the window.

“Tativille” – This is an interview on the set of playtime from 1967 British TV. It was built on a hilltop outside of Paris. Tati escorts us through the set, which is barren and deserted, even more so than in the film. It shows how he choreographs actors, especially during restaurant scene. They are all amateurs and Tati orchestrates their actions a person at a time. The crew talks to the American wives from the nearby base, who really have no idea what type of film they are in, but they are enjoying the experience all the same.

“Beyond Playtime” – This is a short 2002 documentary from Goudet. There are more tours through Tativille, with background about the process. It took two years of filming, where a gigantic set was built from scratch, and it cost 15 million euros. Sadly, the set was later destroyed. Tati affectionately says “Playtime will always be my last film.”

“Like Home” – 2013 Visual essay from Goudet.
Talks about the criticism that Playtime has a lack of structure, but gives the same ‘straight lines turn to curves’ argument. He goes through many of the themes and points out gags that are easy to miss. Finally, he talks about how the film ends with a sense of poetry. Tati said that “I want the movie to begin when you leave the theater.”

Sylvette Baudrot – Interview about the behind-the-scenes process with Baudrot, She talks about a gag that they were not able to pull off, which was an attempt to make the streetlights appear to be watering pots that are hydrating the tourists in the buses as they pass. Instead that premise is used in the restaurant where it appears the waiter pours Champagne onto the ladies hats. She talks about how Tati was an ultra perfectionist with timing, color, and just about everything else. They used cutouts of the Paris buildings that we would see through the windows, as well as cutouts of people as extras and side columns on the building. These were expensive, but in some cases it was cheaper than the alternative, like hiring 100 more extras. One terrific touch that she shared was how funny Tati could be when he acted out the parts to the actors, which included the ladies. Because of his early career as a mime and experience as an actor, he was able to show them virtually everything.

Criterion Rating – 10/10

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Jacques Tati's "Playtime," like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "The Blair Witch Project" or "Russian Ark," is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. Even Mr. Hulot, Tati's alter ego, seems to be wandering through it by accident. Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him.


At the time of its making, "Playtime" (1967) was the most expensive film in French history. Tati filmed it in "Tativille," an enormous set outside Paris that reproduced an airline terminal, city streets, high rise buildings, offices and a traffic circle. It was the direct inspiration for "The Terminal," for which Stephen Spielberg built a vast set of a full-scale airline terminal.

Although Spielberg said he wanted to give Tom Hanks the time and space to develop elaborate situations like Tati serendipitously blundered through, he provided Hanks with a plot, dialogue and supporting characters. Tati made "Playtime" without a story, with dialogue (mostly in English) that is inaudible or disposable, and without a hero.

His film is about how humans wander baffled and yet hopeful through impersonal cities and sterile architecture. "Playtime" doesn't observe from anyone's particular point of view, and its center of intelligence resides not on the screen but just behind the camera lens. The most sympathetic person in the movie is a waiter who becomes a source for replacement parts. More about him later.

Tati filmed his movie in 70mm, that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable. He shot entirely in medium-long and long shots; no closeups, no reaction shots, no over the shoulder. He shows us the big picture all of the time, and our eyes dart around it to find action in the foreground, middle distance, background and half-offscreen. It is difficult sometimes to even know what the subject of a shot is; we notice one bit of business but miss others, and the critic Noel Burch wonders if "the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully."

"Playtime" is Rosenbaum's favorite film, and unlike many of its critics, he doesn't believe it's about urban angst or alienation. In a lovely passage, he writes: "It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform..."


Consider how this works in the extended opening scene. We see a vast, sterile concourse in a modern building. In the foreground, a solicitous wife is reassuring her husband that she has packed his cigarettes and pajamas, and he wearily acknowledges her concern. We understandably conclude that this is the waiting room of a hospital; a woman goes by seeming to push a wheelchair, and a man in a white coat looks doctor-like. Nuns march past in step, their wimples bobbing up and down in unison. Only slowly do these images reveal themselves as belonging to an airline terminal.

A tour group of American women arrives down an escalator. A clerk on a stool with wheels scoots back and forth to serve both ends of his counter. Impenetrable announcements boom from the sound system. Mr. Hulot's entrance is easy to miss; while babbling tourists fill the foreground, he walks into an empty space in the middle distance, drops his umbrella, picks it up and walks off again. The bang of the umbrella directs our eye to the action. The whole sequence is alert to sounds, especially the footfalls of different kinds of shoes and the flip-flops of sandals.

Looking and listening to these strangers, we expect to see more of Mr. Hulot, and we will, but not a great deal. Tati's famous character, often wearing a raincoat and hat, usually with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, always with pants too short and argyle socks, became enormously popular in the director's international hits "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Mon Oncle" (1958, winner of the Oscar for best foreign film).

But nearly 10 years passed before Tati found uncertain financing for the expensive "Playtime," and he wanted to move on from Hulot; to make a movie in which the characters might seem more or less equal and -- just as important -- more or less random, the people the film happens to come across.


"Mon Oncle" has an ultra-modern house as its setting, and in "Playtime," we enter a world of plate glass and steel, endless corridors, work stations, elevators, air conditioning. Hulot goes to call on a man in a modern office and is put on display in a glass waiting room, where he becomes distracted by the rude whooshing sounds the chair cushions make. He takes an elevator trip by accident. A man approaches the building guard to get a light for his cigarette and doesn't realize a glass wall separates them.

Glass walls are a challenge throughout the film; at one point, Hulot breaks a glass door and the enterprising doorman simply holds the large brass handle in midair and opens and closes an invisible door, collecting his tips all the same.

Other characters are mistaken for Hulot in the film, a double is used for him in some scenes, and Hulot encounters at least three old Army buddies, one of whom insists he visit his flat. This generates a wonderful scene; the apartment building has walls of plate-glass windows, and the residents live in full view of the street. We see four apartments at once, and in a sly visual trick, it eventually appears that a neighbor is watching Hulot's army buddy undress when she is actually watching the TV.

But to explain or even recount these moments is to miss the point. They aren't laugh-out-loud gags, but smiles or little shocks of recognition. The last long sequence in the film involves the opening night of a restaurant at which everything goes wrong, and the more it goes wrong, the more the customers are able to relax and enjoy themselves.

The sequence involves a multitude of running jokes, which simultaneously unfold at all distances from the camera; the only stable reference point is supplied by a waiter who rips his pants on the modern chairs and goes to hide behind a pillar. There he is implored by other waiters to lend them his clean towel, his untorn jacket, his shoes and his bowtie, until finally he is a complete mess, an exhibit of haberdashery mishaps.


Some characters stand out more than others. Hulot, of course. An attractive American woman. A loud American man. A short and deliberate little man. A long-suffering restaurant owner. A very drunk man. But scenes don't center on them; everyone swims with the tide. In "Mon Oncle," there is a magical scene where Hulot adjusts a window pane, and it seems to produce a bird song. In "Playtime," we are surrounded by modern architecture, but glass doors reflect the Eiffel Tower, the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre and the deep blue sky. The sight of the sky inspires "oohs" and "ahs" of joy from the tourists, as if they are prisoners and a window has been opened in their cell.

"Playtime" is a peculiar, mysterious, magical film. Perhaps you should see it as a preparation for seeing it; the first time won't quite work. The best way to see it is on 70mm, but that takes some doing (although a print is currently in circulation in North America). The Criterion DVD is crisp and detailed, and includes an introduction by Terry Jones, who talks about how the commercial failure of the film bankrupted Tati (1909-1982) and cost him the ownership of his home, his business and all of his earlier films. Was Tati reckless to risk everything on such a delicate, whimsical work? Reckless for you, reckless for me, not reckless for a dreamer.

"Playtime" is now playing in 70mm and DTS sound at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport.

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